Expected by many to be one of the worst teams in the league at the start of last season, the Bobcats went on to win nine Big Sky games and tie intrastate rival Montana for second place in the standings. The turnaround earned Mick Durham the league’s Coach of the Year award, and with all five starters -- including senior guards Ja’Ron Jefferson and Branden Miller and senior forward Marvin Moss -- returning, MSU looks to be the class of the league this time around. Moss and Jefferson were both All-Big Sky selections and, along with Miller, accounted for 55.2 percent of the Bobcats’ offensive production last winter. In addition, Durham has a good defender on the wing in junior Nick Dissly and a growing presence in the post in Alioune Beye, a 6-foot-11 senior and second-year junior college transfer. Beye averaged 8.5 points and shot 63.6 percent from the field, but he must improve from the line, where he hit a dismal 33.3 percent.
2. Montana (18–13, 9–5)
The Grizzlies went as far as the broad shoulders of Kamarr Davis could carry them last season — which just happened to be all the way to the NCAA tournament, courtesy of UM’s 63–61 win over Weber State in the championship game of the Big Sky Tournament. This year, second-year coach Larry Krystkowiak and his Grizzlies will have to find a way to get it done without Davis, who averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds after missing seven games because of academic issues. But the return of their next five leading scorers from 2004-05 — including all-conference guard Kevin Criswell — gives the Griz reason to be optimistic. Criswell averaged 12.3 points as a junior and will team with sophomore Matt Martin, who hit a team-high 56 3-point field goals, to give the Grizzlies one of the top backcourt tandems in the league.
3. Northern Arizona (11–17, 4–10)
The Lumberjacks lost all-conference point guard Kyle Feuerbach to graduation but return most of their other key players from last season, including leading scorer Steve Sir, a 6-6 senior shooting guard who averaged 14.0 points per game and shot 46.1 percent from 3-point range as a junior. Joining Sir in the backcourt is DeJuan Stevens, a 6-3 senior who averaged 12.3 points as a junior, and senior Kelly Golob, who averaged 11.5 points per game. Coach Mike Adras’ roster is loaded with guards, but there are some major questions on the frontline.
4. Eastern Washington (8–20, 5–9)
After making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2004, the Eagles suffered through a disappointing winter under first-year coach Mike Burns. Scoring leader Marc Axton graduated and a couple of holdovers from the Ray Giacoletti era opted out of the program, but Burns likes the players who have stuck around. Fueling his optimism is the return of sophomore frontliners Henry Bekkering and Jacob Beitinger, both part-time starters as freshmen, and the expected emergence of senior Deuce Smith as one of the best guards in the league. In addition, the Eagles gain the services of highly touted sophomore guard Rodney Stuckey, who sat out last season because of academics.
5. Sacramento State (12–16, 8–6)
The Hornets put together a solid run against Big Sky opponents last winter and return five of their top sevens scorers, including last year’s Newcomer of the Year Jason Harris, a 6-4 guard who averaged 17.5 points and 4.6 rebounds during his first year at Sacramento State. Also returning are 6-6 junior forward Alex Bausley and 5-11 senior point guard DaShawn Freeman, who both averaged more than 10 points per game last winter. The loss of swingman Jameel Pugh (15.0 ppg, team-high 59 3-point field goals) will hurt, but there is little reason to think the Hornets will fall far from the first division.
6. Weber State (14–16, 7–7)
The graduation loss of all-league center Lance Allred, who averaged 17.7 points and 12.0 rebounds last season, will make it difficult for the Wildcats to match last year’s .500 league record. Senior guard Coric Riggs returns after averaging 10.3 points as a junior, and fellow senior Terrell Stovall is a capable offensive player as well; the part-time starter shot 40.0 percent from the 3-point arc and 88.7 percent from the line. But the available firepower falls off quickly from there.
7. Portland State (19–9, 11–3)
The Vikings come in as the defending regular-season Big Sky champs, but first-year coach Ken Bone faces a major rebuilding effort. Three starters, including last year’s league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Seamus Boxley, have departed, leaving senior guard Jake Schroeder and 6-11 sophomore center Scott Morrison as the only returnees with much in the way of experience. Schroeder is the team’s top threat from long-range — his 53 3-pointers were more than twice as many as any other Viking.
8. Idaho State (9–18, 3–11)
The Bengals have one of the league’s most athletic frontline performers in 6-7 senior Antoine “Slim” Millien, a second-year junior college transfer who averaged 11.8 points and a team-best 5.2 rebounds during his first season at Idaho State. Unfortunately for Bengal fans, there isn’t much in the way of proven talent to put around him. Veteran coach Doug Oliver has his work cut out for him.